A truly dedicated scientist

Jean Jouzel is a world-renowned pale­o­cli­ma­tol­o­gist and from 2002 to 2015 was Vice-Chair­man of the Sci­en­tif­ic Com­mit­tee of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC). Recip­i­ent of numer­ous sci­en­tif­ic awards, he received, in 2002 with Claude Lorius, the CNRS Gold Medal and, in 2012 with Susan Salomon, the Vetle­sen Prize, the Earth and Uni­verse Sci­ences Prize, con­sid­ered to be the equiv­a­lent of the Nobel Prize for these fields. Today, the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and its health, but also eco­nom­ic and social con­se­quences, give him hope that the future recov­ery will be green­er and pro­vide the oppor­tu­ni­ty to invent a more sus­tain­able devel­op­ment mod­el. Por­trait of a man of commitments. 

His first com­mit­ment is to research. “I grad­u­at­ed from the Ecole de Chimie de Lyon at the age of 21, and “I did­n’t see myself pur­su­ing a career as an engi­neer in the busi­ness world,” he says. So it was only nat­ur­al that he accept­ed the sub­ject of his the­sis — the study of sul­phur iso­topes — pro­posed by Éti­enne Roth, head of the sta­ble iso­topes depart­ment at the French Atom­ic Ener­gy Com­mis­sion (CEA) at Saclay (Essonne). Inci­den­tal­ly, this enabled him to get clos­er to his native Brittany. 

On his arrival at the CEA — his sec­ond com­mit­ment, as he had spent his entire research career there — Éti­enne Roth offered him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work on hail for­ma­tion. Jean Jouzel let him­self be con­vinced, admit­ting “to have fall­en, dur­ing his the­sis in love with hail, snow and ice”. A pas­sion that would nev­er leave him and which he shared with Claude Lorius. At the begin­ning of the 1980s, in part­ner­ship with the Greno­ble glaciol­o­gy team and the Sovi­et sci­en­tists, they decid­ed to study the ice cores from the Vos­tok research base in Antarc­ti­ca. This was to lead to a major dis­cov­ery a few years lat­er. “In 1987, we had 160 000 years of archives. At the CEA, we analysed the iso­topic con­tent of the ice, while our col­leagues in Greno­bles were inter­est­ed in the car­bon diox­ide con­tent of the small air bubbles”.

“In par­tic­u­lar, this made it pos­si­ble to estab­lish the link between green­house gas­es and cli­mate,” he explains. This was fol­lowed in 1987 by three arti­cles that made the head­lines in Nature and marked a turn­ing point in the dis­ci­pline, but also in the per­cep­tion of the cli­mate change issues by both the media and the gen­er­al public.

Anoth­er major dis­cov­ery, in 1992, this time in Green­land, was what is known as the “cli­mate sur­prise”, in oth­er words the rapid vari­a­tion in tem­per­a­ture, which led to an evo­lu­tion in his research. “We realised that the study of the past cli­mate could pro­vide rel­e­vant ele­ments for the analy­sis of the future cli­mate,” empha­sis­es Jean Jouzel, before adding: “We now know, for exam­ple, that 125 000 years ago, with a tem­per­a­ture 1 to 2°C high­er than today, the sea lev­el rose by 7 to 10 metres” From then on, research and aware­ness accelerated.

As the first French expert to join the IPCC, in 1993, he has been involved in the draft­ing of four out of five reports pub­lished to date. 

His final com­mit­ment is his involve­ment in pub­lic debate, par­tic­u­lar­ly with young peo­ple in schools, high schools… “Young peo­ple are the first to be con­cerned by the issue of cli­mate change. With­out their mobil­i­sa­tion, the ques­tion risks dis­ap­pear­ing from radar screens of pub­lic author­i­ties”, con­cludes Jean Jouzel.

Le magazine

Avril 2024 - N°62

Faire face aux enjeux environnementaux

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